Mathematician and engineer

My fiancée is trained as a pure mathematician. If you’ve ever spent time with a mathematician, you understand why Pythagoras and his gang were considered a strange, unworldly religious cult. Mathematicians aren’t like you and me.

When my fiancée was eight or nine, her mother bought her a boxed set of books called, The World of Mathematics. The description in the catalog made it sound like a book of puzzles and games. Instead, it’s a collection of essays and papers, some historical, some philosophical, some theoretical, some practical. Some are out-and-out funny – Bishop Berkeley’s The Analyst: A DISCOURSE Addressed to an Infidel MATHEMATICIAN. WHEREIN It is examined whether the Object, Principles, and Inferences of the modern Analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more evidently deduced, than Religious Mysteries and Points of Faith.

All are far over the head of an eight- or nine-year-old; most are aimed at a mathematically literate college graduate. Many assume an understanding of calculus. And yet, she read it over and over until she understood it.

Her favorite essay? G H Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. (You can read it here.) It’s what inspired her to become a mathematician. Hardy says that the joy of mathematics isn’t that it’s useful. It’s that it’s beautiful. The beauty isn’t in the usefulness of the thing proved, it’s in the elegance of proof itself.

Hardy was a number theorist. To Hardy, much of the charm of Number Theory was that it had no immediate use. It was pure elegance. Mathematics purely for the joy of Mathematics.

Hardy was a pacifist; he wrote the Apology in 1940, as the Second World War was raging and the Great War still fresh in his mind. He was pleased that Number Theory couldn’t be used to make bombs or poison gas. The joke (if there is one) was on Hardy: Number Theory is the basis for modern cryptography and code-breaking. Polish mathematicians had already used it to crack the Nazi Enigma code machine. Alan Turing and his gang would build on that to crack more sophisticated code machines. General Eisenhower said the Enigma intelligence was “decisive” in defeating the Nazis.

Hardy not only inspired my Love to be a mathematician, he inspired her to become a number theorist. This summer, she gave me a copy of a textbook Hardy wrote with E M Wright, Introduction to the Theory of Numbers. It’s an incredibly elegant book, accessible to anyone who passed ninth grade algebra. Even an engineer can see why it enthralled her.

You might think that Number Theory means proving things about numbers. If so, you’d be wrong. She proved things about constructs that have some attributes of numbers, but have strange and interesting pathologies. As she describes it, it’s taking something familiar (the integers) and then removing the elements that make it familiar.

I don’t pretend to understand any of it. One afternoon, I picked up one of her books, entitled A Course in Arithmetic. “Aha,” I thought, “Arithmetic. I can understand that!”

I was wrong. There’s nothing in there that you or I would recognize as arithmetic. The only numbers are page numbers. Should you so desire, you can read the original French or an English translation on the internet.


Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.

O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
— Edna St Vincent Millay, Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare


She insists that she’s not a mathematician now: Mathematicians prove things; she hasn’t proved anything since she was in graduate school. Her partners tell me that’s false: She has proved dozens of theorems fundamental to her business. They insist that she could write as many as 20 ground-breaking, publishable papers over a weekend.


Engineering is as ruthlessly pragmatic as Mathematics is ruthlessly unworldly. Mathematics is logical. Engineering is empirical.

Engineers delight in teasing mathematicians.

Who cares if you can prove it? The only thing that matters is, does it work?

Thanks for the rules of thumb!

Mathematicians are horrified at what engineers do with Mathematics. They are particularly horrified at engineers’ use of dot notation for derivative. (You are not expected to understand this.)

Still, the joy of engineering is also in creating something elegant – and tangible and useful.

I started my career as a design engineer. There’s a purity to design engineering, which one doesn’t really understand until one visits a jobsite where one’s design is being executed. (Or, as any design engineer will tell you, being butchered.) Then you realize that,

The map is not the territory.
— Alfred Korzybski

I worked while I pursued my graduate degrees. My interesting papers are on integration of complex subsystems. They are abstract, theoretic and analytic.

My work career quickly took a different direction. I left the desk for the field. I loved taking on difficult practical problems. The more bizarre and difficult the problem, the better I liked it. I wasn’t married, I had no social life, I didn’t have any ties or distractions. I could throw myself into problems, working on them every waking hour. Even while sleeping: I got some of my best ideas while asleep.

The problems that seemed most intractable – and interesting – involved integration of complex subsystems. My academic career was heavy on abstraction, but the abstractions helped me think clearly about solving concrete problems.


My fiancée and I work in overwhelmingly male-dominated fields.

Mathematics is not so male-dominated as it once was. But in the uses to which my fiancée puts Mathematics, the decisions are made by men: CEOs, CFOs and heads of corporate strategy for major multinationals; managers of high-risk international ventures; senior bankers and investment bankers. She’s usually the only girl in the room, and she has to prove that she’s smarter than all the boys.

Engineering and construction are overwhelmingly masculine and testosterone-laden. A girl engineer is a rare thing, especially a girl engineer in charge. I’m usually the only girl in the room, and I have to prove that I’m smarter than all the boys.

At that level respect is critical. Man or woman,

Respect isn’t given. It must be earned.

More than that, it has to be earned anew on every job.

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4 thoughts on “Mathematician and engineer

  1. Heh… as an applied scientist married to a PhD mathematician, this post certainly struck a chord. :-)

    I teach Fourier transforms in one of my advanced classes. One time my husband asked me, out of curiosity, how I teach Fourier transforms, and then was horrified when I launched right into what you can *do* with Fourier transforms without explaining the theoretical details of proving why the transformation works and how exactly the variable pairs are defined. (I mean, I always start off by going through the FT equation with my students, pointing out the application of Euler’s formula, and conceptually discussing how this transformation effectively breaks any function into a series of sines and cosines with different frequencies… but that’s not good enough for him.) It was funny to watch his horror… but if I taught FTs the way a mathematician would, it’d take me all year to explain interferometry!

    I guess the biggest difference from your experience is that while I have also experienced working as a woman in a male-dominated field, my husband hasn’t (for obvious reasons). I think it’s something he hadn’t even thought much about before we started dating, but I happen to do a lot of equity and inclusion work in my field, so we talk about it a fair amount, and he’s absorbed a lot through osmosis. You’re certainly right that men and women both have to work hard to earn respect in technical fields, but the starting point for the guys is on average different than for the women — and now that I’m reaching childbearing years and having to work my travel schedule around my pregnancy schedule(s) I’m finding that there are biological realities holding back my career that just don’t apply to him in the same way. I imagine it’s nice to have a partner who *gets* it on an experiential level rather than having to have it explained to her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Turns out FTs are the perfect example –

      She said she didn’t remember FTs coming up at all in her (Pure) Math courses, other than being told that “they’re important in Engineering.” (!!!!) We pulled out her Analysis text. The entire discussion of FTs was one “Miscellaneous Exercise” in the chapter on Fourier Analysis. She said there was a question on FTs in her quals, which she thought was “unsporting”. (She hated Calc/DE/Real Analysis, although Complex Analysis was “satisfying”.)

      She had to learn about FTs when she did financial math. Her firm uses them in constructing models, but she says she leaves that to the “kids” (recent hires).

      You are definitely right that the starting point is different for men. The keys are to always be the best prepared person in the room, state your points succinctly, then shut up. Be polite and show respect where warranted, but don’t let anybody push you around.

      I take my advice from John Parker’s order at Lexington Green: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

      My job has been trying to fix colossally screwed up engineering projects, where everybody frequently does mean to have a war.

      And, yes, it’s very nice to have somebody who understands that, without needing an explanation.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Paradox: The incoherence of common sense | Family Values Lesbian

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